What My Mouth Knew: Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

Jiro and Yoshikazu

When film theorist Vivian Sobchack saw Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) she experienced the opening shots with more than just her eyes. The blurred rosy shapes dancing across the screen so she says, was first experienced with her fingers: they knew, before perception caught up, that those objects onscreen were in fact human appendages. In a long passage she summarizes:

what is extraordinary about the opening shot of The Piano is that it offers… a relatively rare instance of a narrative cinema in which the cultural hegemony of vision is overthrown, an instance in which my eyes did not ‘see’ anything meaningful and experienced an almost blindness at the same time that my tactile sense of being in the world through my fingers grasped the image’s sense in a way that forestalled or baffled vision could not.

Her notion of the cinesthetic subject – from synaesthesia: the perception of one sense inciting sensation in another; and coenaesthesia: sensing with the whole of one’s body – is made fundamental to the viewing experience, an a priori condition, i.e., the lived body in the manner defined by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, for critical or rational reflection of moving-images.

Like Sobchack then, there seems only one approach to writing on a film whose theme is a delicate and delicious Japanese dish.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011), the first feature directed and shot by David Gelb, is literal in its title. This documentary feature asks of Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old sushi chef, what occupies his sleeping thoughts. All he can answer is sushi. Jiro has been practicing his craft for 75 years now (2011), forced into the job as a 10-year-old when his father passed away. The distain for both his parents fueled him additionally, perhaps finding in his work a passion that was otherwise lacking at home. Old age has not hindered his business so far and his son Yoshikazu, already 50-years-old, is slated to take over when Jiro retires or dies. Yoshikazu is likewise a shokunin (artisan), we are repeatedly shown throughout the feature, whose passion and perfection rivals his own father. (We are told by the food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto – who effectively provides much of the back-story and reception – that the Michelin guide critics were served, on each of their three-star rated visits, by the son.) Jiro’s second born Takashi, as tradition would have it, after learning his trade was told to open his own restaurant and share his art with others.

The restaurant in question, Sukiyabashi Jiro, as well as the daily rituals and market excursions, are the focus of the film’s narrative. We may not want to call it a restaurant; it is an exclusive bar-space in the basement of an office building with a rather minimalist aesthetic, seating only 10 customers at a time thus allowing each piece of sushi to be prepared, delivered, and eaten in front customer and chef’s eyes. We also learn one must have booked a seat at least a month or even a year in advance. The director gives us a brief exchange on this matter when a young man attempts to gain entry and he is, not exactly politely, notified by Yoshikazu of the price – 30,000 yen or $315 USD – and reservation commitment to eat at the establishment. We also learn that they serve neither appetizer nor drinks. Sushi, and only sushi.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a rather conventional documentary: we begin with Jiro and his food, and trace that present to uncover the mystery of his restaurant and its highly-regarded lunch and dinner courses. We follow Yoshikazu to the fish market where only the best ingredients are bought from the best fishmongers; how the fishmonger picks the best quality products from auction; the methods used by the chefs and apprentices to prepare the items; the rice salesman’s fidelity to Jiro; and finally a meal served to patrons and us viewers who will likely never get a chance to eat such delectable fare. Gelb takes us through an entire meal, 20 pieces of sushi, prepared and performed by the chefs and placed without fluff on a minimalist black plate before our very eyes. The food critic Yamamoto describes the dinner as a concerto divided into three movements:

Classic items, like tuna and kohada, are presented in the first movement.

The items in the second movement are fresh catches of the day. Certain items that can only be found seasonally are served. Some of the fish is raw, while some is cooked. The second movement is like an improvisation. It’s like a cadenza. In the third movement, sea eel, kanpyo, and egg comprise a traditional finale. There are dynamics in the way the sushi is served, just like music.

By the time we are finished with the concerto, after seeing how each piece is expertly composed, our mouths are salivating and bellies aching for just a taste. This is the film’s appeal: bringing us dishes we could not otherwise consume, beautifully framed and shot with the same kind of care Jiro and Yoshikazu display in their craft.

The documentary is not solely about the operations of the restaurant. Two other sequences toward the end of the feature emphasize the personal nature of Jiro’s love of his work on the one hand, and with any concerned citizen of planet earth, the environmental impact of consumption on the other. In the first Jiro returns to his hometown Hamamatsu to see old friends, his parent’s grave, and visit local sites. This personal touch adds to the commitment Jiro makes to perfect his art; there is something almost lost it seems as his childhood is recounted and memories reawakened. So much of his life has been dedicated to sushi at the cost of family and friends. It is here we begin to wonder whether Jiro deserves our praise or a strange pity. The second element is brief but necessary. Yoshikazu remembers a time when sushi was not so popular, when fish was available in vaster quantities, and a respect was shown for its preparation and consumption. Over-fishing and making the food available everywhere has reduced its quality and the number of fish in the sea. “Businesses should balance profit with preserving natural resources,” he mentions, and we wonder how long before our favorite fish or crustacean disappears. (The son then gets into his Audi and the father rides the subway – clearly the respect for sea creatures has been lost to Yoshikazu.) This gesture toward respect for eating seafood seemed an important one for a film that had not, up until this scene, addressed ethics of consumption.

The typical or cliché quality of the documentary occasionally distracts. The art of cinematography and editing takes away from the focus on Jiro’s story and his sushi; the slowed shots of Jiro and son’s stoical gaze, or Yoshikazu exiting to the street in slow motion are a bit unnecessary, emphasized all the more so by the overused composer Philip Glass. As someone who truly enjoys his music and finds his original scores a worthwhile addition to cinema (The Hours [2002] and The Qatsi Trilogy [1983, 1988, 2002] the most obvious examples), it takes a certain talent to know when to score his music and to which images. The use of his rhythmic compositions to heighten the significance of movement, if done incorrectly, appears as a cheap attempt to intensify otherwise banal sequences. Gelb does defend himself against my accusation, claiming the repetitiveness of the music and Jiro’s routine an obvious link. Perhaps for the average viewer this is necessary; for others, or at least for me, the everyday rituals performed by Jiro, Yoshikazu and co. are perfect without Glass or speeding up their behaviours. (My bias on the table: I am very fond of the banal, for example, in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman… [1975].) The slowed preparation shots however, I agree with Gelb, are required: the precise actions, watching fingers glide across fish and press together rice, is as beautiful as watching an artist’s brush strokes. I can only suggest to Gelb and future documentarians: Let the images speak for themselves, especially when the focus is on particular objects and their relation to the persons that produced them, and those that consume them.

In the end, Jiro Dreams of Sushi has rightfully earned its total gross ($2.5 million USD alone). For spectators who love sushi or just a really good story about art, discipline, and success, the film is a mouth-watering experience.

Jiro and co

A short interview with Gelb: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2012/03/09/jiro_dreams_of_sushi_director_david_gelb_talks_about_sushi_slo_mo_and_philip_glass.html

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